On the banks of the Mississippi, tucked behind a plethora of trees lies the 51 building, one of the oldest and smallest buildings on campus, but despite its size, there’s potential for some big changes.
Christopher Lehman, a professor in the department of Ethnic Studies is on the forefront of a petition to change the name of the 51 building to Webster Hall. Webster, being the surname of the first African American woman to graduate from St. Cloud State University back in 1909. Lehman said he’s been pushing for action as early as last year.
“I had wanted last year for the building to be renamed after a famous person in St. Cloud, and particularly a person of color,” Lehman explained. If the building did go under a name change, it would be the first to be named after a non-white person.
Lehman made an attempt before to name the building after Mary and John Buttler, two slaves who were located in the St. Cloud community. However, since neither of them attended the University, they couldn’t be taken into consideration, but Butler Park, which was created this past year, was named after them.
According to University Archives, Ruby Cora Webster was one of the first documented African American women to attend SCSU. They say it’s unclear if there were other African-American women and if there were, they were not identified in the transcripts.
Originally from Ohio, Webster arrived in St. Cloud at a young age. She joined SCSU in 1908 and graduated the following year, receiving a teacher’s certificate. Her time at the university consisted of a one-year course to determine whether students had received a high school diploma and whether they were going to teach in a rural school. She was also listed in 1911/1912 and 1912/1913 as part of the “fifth-year class,” but did not obtain a degree – you can find her transcripts in the links below:
Ms. Webster then taught in the St. Cloud school district before getting married and moving to Kansas City.
While SCSU has recognized the petition exists, they do not have the authority to rename the building without consent from the MNSCU system. When a new building is constructed, whoever donates money to it, has the jurisdiction to name the building, but as Professor Lehman explains, there is no policy for renaming a facility that already exists. But with the recent outpour of support for the petition from students, faculty, and staff, SCSU is currently working on a process to give itself more bargaining power.
Professor Lehman explains this petition is important to him because he wants people of color to have a permanent standing on campus.
“As a former college student myself, I know that for some students of color it’s important to see yourself on the campus and not just seeing other students of color, but actually see a presence in terms of physical buildings,” he said.
“If you know that there are students of color who look like you, faculty that looks like you, staff that looks like you, but those people come and go. If you don’t see any buildings named after people who look like you, that suggests there’s not really a place of permanence for you here. And it also suggests that there isn’t a way the university has honored anyone of color who is meaningful to the St. Cloud State community.
African American students aren’t the only ones rallying behind him. Cynthia Magallanes, a Latino graduate student said she is in full support of the name change.
“51 is a very cold name for a building, it’s not personable and changing the name to the first African American graduate from St. Cloud State, it has an impact on the cultural changes we’re making here,” she said. “As a woman, as a woman of color, it speaks to my journey of continuing my education, it says we value you as a woman, we value you as a person of color.”
A former professor who taught during the time of the Civil Rights Movement has also come out in support. Mil Voelker, an Affirmative Action Officer remembers what it was like during that period for women to move up in the ranks and make a difference, especially someone of African-American descent.
“Certainly, I had an easier time stepping into a position [of power] than my sisters of color had then, and, indeed, have today,” she said.
Voelker also mentioned during her 25-years at SCSU, she didn’t see much diversity but mentions she’s glad the University is finally making those changes.
“It’s good to see the effort to go back to the beginnings and name a building, especially one housing the English Department, after this African American woman, Ruby Cora,” she said.
For now, the original name stands, but Professor Lehman said he hopes a decision will be made soon. As SCSU approaches its 150th birthday, the University said it would like to retain its commitment to diversity.